In 2008, when Brian Burke was introduced as the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he made it very clear what kind of team he wanted to build. “We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. That’s how our teams play,” he said.
To much of the old-school, “Dougie Gilmour would’ve crushed those Sedin Sisters” crowd that makes up a significant portion of Toronto’s fanbase, that sounded very promising. However, it’s becoming very clear that the days of simply outmuscling opponents are long gone. Drafting for size – as Burke did with Tyler Biggs (whom he traded up to get in the first round of the 2011 draft), David Broll, Jamie Devane, Petter Granberg and many others – no longer seems to be a viable strategy. Of course, Brian Burke did a decent job in Toronto – assembling a core including Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and James van Riemsdyk. The problem was with his master plan.
Brendan Shanahan, now at the helm in Toronto, is very visibly cleaning house after an abysmal 2014-15 season. Not only are the majority of Burke’s previous front-office, coaching and scouting staff gone, as well as stars like Phil Kessel, but so are many of the minor-league contracts given to Burke’s “truculent” players (Tyler Biggs, Eric Knodel, Frazer McLaren, Brad Ross, and so on). Shanahan brought on a younger, more forward-thinking team in the front office, featuring Kyle Dubas, Mark Hunter and Brandon Pridham.
The direction Shanahan is moving in is evident already. At the 2014 draft, they pleasantly surprised many by passing on big forward Nick Ritchie, whom a lot of fans and pundits expected them to draft (he would’ve been a similar pick to their 2013 1st round selection, Frederik Gauthier, as well as Tyler Biggs). Instead, they took 5’11” Swedish forward William Nylander, who boasts impressive offensive talent and has a much higher ceiling than Ritchie.
At this year’s draft just a couple weeks ago, the Maple Leafs again showed their plan to draft for skill rather than size and grit. They took 5’11” Mitch Marner 4th overall, which was almost universally acclaimed as a very good pick. In later rounds, they continued to draft relatively smaller, skilled players who had been passed up by other teams (like Travis Dermott and Jeremy Bracco – both of whom were available later than expected). Realizing that no pick in the late rounds can be a “safe” pick, the Toronto brain trust opted to take players with high ceilings – including Nikita Korostelev in the 185th overall, who was ranked by some in the top 60, but fell out of favour after his interviews at the draft combine (LWOS’s draft grades mentioned him as the best value pick in the entire 2015 draft). Overall, what was arguably the most important draft in Toronto’s history was executed very well by Shanahan, Hunter and Dubas.
This summer, the Leafs are showing a strong desire to rejuvenate the stale prospect pool of just two years ago. At the draft combine, they interviewed more than 90 potential selections, showing just how seriously they took this crucial part of their rebuild. A cupboard that was almost bare not too long ago, renowned for producing draft busts and bottom-six “grit” players, is now overflowing with talent, thanks to both prudent draft selections (Nylander and Marner, especially) and trades (such as Kasperi Kapanen and Brendan Leipsic).
The Maple Leafs can now confidently claim to have framework in place for the future at every position. On the blueline, despite not drafting a blue-chip defensive prospect this year, they have some depth. The future core will be led by Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, joined possibly by Stuart Percy, Victor Loov, Travis Dermott and Matt Finn. In net, probably the franchise’s weakest area in terms of prospects, Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks will be hoping to get a chance in the NHL this coming season.
To those critics who claim the Leafs have loaded up on too many small, offensive forwards: it’s hard to see why that would be a problem. Either the team will be immensely talented up front five years down the road, or they will trade one or two of their forward prospects for a defenceman or goalie.
Obviously, the Leafs have a long way to go before contending, but the team’s turnaround is evident. A lot of the pieces are in place for the first successful rebuild in Toronto for a very long time. Patience, and analytics, are finally prevailing. Drafting talented hockey players, regardless of size, is certainly the right philosophy in today’s NHL. Muscle can be gained (William Nylander put on 20 pounds of muscle between the 2014 draft and today), but natural skill is hard to teach. Players like Mitch Marner, gifted with offensive abilities, are the right players to lead the future Toronto Maple Leafs.